Stephen's Web

By Stephen Downes
August 5, 2002

Special Report

E-Learning In Crisis

It was early in 2001 and I was in Australia working with philosophy professor Tim van Gelder when I first attempted to deploy what are now called learning objects. Time had produced a high quality introductory logic course and wanted to make it available to colleges and universities around the world. But when I enquired to WebCT and Blackboard I found that, despite their being "standards compliant" there was no way to get Tim's material into their systems. That's when I discovered the crucial flaw in the system: it was a closed market, an enclave for content publishers and their allies, with content producers like Tim being stuck out of the loop.

So while I was in Australia I wrote a piece called The Learning Marketplace in which I described a system for the open distribution and reuse of learning objects. It was based largely on RSS technologies already being deployed for news media (and which today forms the foundation of the educational blog movement). Though distributed through my newsletter, the paper remained largely unread save for a scathing criticism from a developer at Saba who, in essence, told me "that's not how we're doing it."

That took the wind out of my sails a bit and I never did finish the paper (which is why it remains in draft form on my website). But it did force me to look again at how the whole learning object economy has developed since the publication of my essay Learning Objects a year earlier. The paper has since evolved into another draft, The Learning Object Economy, which describes (in a non-technical way) the state of the art in such a way that even a Saba developer can't disparage it.

But the more time I have spent working on The Learning Object Economy (and the more time a very patient Maxim Jean-Louis, who commissioned the paper, sat waiting for it) the more I became dissatisfied with the state of e-learning in 2002 America. Last fall I began predicting a crisis in e-learning. This spring I launched into a series of tirades attacking what I have come to call "big ugly LCMSs" and their over-hyped and (especially) overpriced model for e-learning. Today many of the undercurrents of dissent have come boiling to the surface.

Why Iím Paying For an Online Newspaper Elliott Masie recycles an article from his newsletter last June in this month's IT Training magazine. Apparently he did not like my response because he never wrote back or even acknowledged its receipt (I hate that!).

The gist of my response was this: "It's one thing to talk about our being used to paying for printed newspapers, and to talk about it only being fair to compensate editors and writers for plying their craft, but in fact with virtually free global syndication, the substantially reduced cost of publication, and an increasing capacity on the part of the public to speak for itself, such productions and such professionals are not needed in nearly the quantity they were formerly. When we look at what is possible with new media and internet technology, it makes less and less sense to be paying print era prices for online reproductions of industrial age products."

This is the basis behind the current crisis in e-learning. The industrialists - as I characterize those who are pushing the enterprise LCMS solution - and pursuing a lock and key approach to e-learning, pricing it out of the range of all but the large corporations. But now we have hit the crisis point of that strategy. It can't continue, and the reverberations are being felt across the internet.

Maybe what it tok was the firing of a reporter and the folding of a magazine to bring this all to a head (see below)... By Elliott Masie, IT Training, August, 2002 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

The Illusion of E-learning: Why We Are Missing Out On the Promise of IP Technology The author, Frank L. Greenagel, pulls no punches. "E-learning has not kept pace with the development of increasingly rich IP-based delivery platforms because the e-learning experience is, far too often, puerile, boring and of unknown or doubtful effectiveness." According to Greenagel, "The technology platform is driving the instructional strategy, warping our focus, which should be on creating an engaging learning experience that reliably contributes to the organizationís objectives."

He offers a number of criticisms, worth repeating here because they are (for the most part) on the mark:

  • Developers donít seem to be aware of how people learn, for they continue to use mostly flawed models.
  • Corporations are more interested in throughput and low unit cost, so solid measures of effectiveness are infrequently developed or applied.
  • The available platform drives the instructional strategy, which may not be appropriate to the learning style of trainees or to the learning objectives.
  • The cost of development is high, so bad (cheap) programs drive out the good ones in the absence of any commitment to measure effectiveness.
  • Effective e-learning experiences are rarely scalable.

The author blames the lack of a proper model of cost-effectiveness based on a flawed assessment of outcomes. He additional argues that the current discussion of standards is a "distraction" and that the move toward learning objects itself may be a mistake because "we know that learning doesnít happen in discrete chunks." And he complains that people hyping e-learning, such as Elliott Masie, "[see] no inherent contradiction between the centrality of learning effectiveness to the long range success of e-learning and the drive for interoperability."

What can be done? Greenagel is a little vague but tends toward arguing for the use of the internet's communication capacities and conferencing tools and toward placing greater emphasis on learning styles and adult learner preferences. Geenagel is walking on dangerous ground here (expect to see a chorus from those opposed to the idea of learning styles) but his essential point is sound. Contemporary e-learning is about packaging, locking and marketing content to a captive audience. It could be more, so much more. But the basic approach being pursued by the LCMS vendors is flawed. By Frank L. Greenagel, E-Learning Magazine, July 31, 2002 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

The Bottom Line: Effective Learning Versus Low Per Unit Cost Commentary on Greenagel's e-Learning Magazine article. In a nutshell, "And there's the rub: for all the many specifications, there is no agreed measure for learning effectiveness. Still, to blame the drive for interoperability standards for that lack seems a little disingenuous; those standards were never meant for that purpose." Fair enough, but as the author observes, "Looking at the bigger picture, criticism of the (perceived) pedagogic inadequacies of present e-learning courses or the specifications that constrain them seems likely to increase." By Wilbert Kraan, CETIS, August 2, 2002 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

Re: SCORM: Clarity or Calamity? Reaction to the article published last week, Scorm: Clarity or Calamity, ADL's Mark Oehlert lept to the defense (leading to catcalls of the SCORM Troopers being let loose). On Serious Instructional Technology and on trdev (a Yahoo group hidden behind a registration, but quoted in full here), Oehlert wrote, "The writer of the article has been fired, the print version of the magazine in which it appeared is out of business and the editor has allowed Thor Anderson of IMS, who is quoted at length in the article, to not only post an explanatory 'letter to the editor' but has also allowed him to go back into the article and edit hisquotes to resemble something more like the truth of his statements."

I contacted the editors of Online Learning Magazine, who replied:

For the record:

1) The writer is no longer with our company, but his departure has nothing whatsoever to do with the article. In fact, his employment with us was terminated prior to the issue being mailed.

2) The magazine in which it appeared has been incorporated into its 40-year-old sister publication, Training magazine. Given that e-learning is just another tool in the training/learning toolbox, it made no sense for us to continue publishing two separate products so we merged them into one (the one with the far superior brand image) that will continue to cover the entire market.

3) Any letters to the editor that we receive regarding Online Learning's last issue will be posted on since there will not be an opportunity for us to print them elsewhere (we cannot simply print them in the next issue of Training because Training's subscribers will have no earthly idea to which article they are referring.)

4) Finally, we did indeed allow Thor to alter his direct quotes. Typically, we would never have cause to do this. In a normal world, we would simply run his letter to the editor in the next issue of the magazine and hope that his letter would serve to clarify his quotes sufficiently for him. However, since there will be no "next" issue, I offered that we clean the quotes up before the article was posted.

I trust that this answers your questions.

Tammy Galvin
Executive Editor

By Mark Oehlert, Serious Instructional Technology, August 5, 2002 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

Hosting the E-learning Party This article raises an excellent question. "When learning needs wonít wait, more and more companies are looking to quick-start ASP (application service provider) solutions, where e-learning content, services and management systems are externally hosted." But, "so if ASPís such a good option, why isnít everyone using it?" The author cites problems such as security, bandwidth and reliability. But I think it's deeper than that: people didn't want to find themselves in the situation like those who used Geocities, Hotmail or Yahoo Groups - sudden changes in terms of service (including huge cost increases) - once they were locked in to the service. By Clive Shepherd, Fastrack Consulting, August, 2002 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

Four Architectures of Instruction Everybody loves lists that offer a simple categorization of an otherwise complex field, and thus thus work by Ruth Colvin Clark, referred to in the links below, is becoming a standard division of types of architectures of instruction. In a nutshell, Clark four major types of architecture:

  • Receptive - instruction is provided in a fixed linear path from beginning to end, as in a video or television show
  • Directive - a path is suggested through a learning hierarchy, but the learner can flip back and forth, as in a book
  • Guided Discovery - learners are encouraged to explore a learning environment, as in a simulation, case study or scenario
  • Exploratory - learners may freely search or jump from place to place, as on the world wide web, an information database or a library.

What is interesting to me is that this newsletter, designed explicitly as a form of online learning, does not fit into any of the categories. Rather, it falls into the category I call "syndicated learning" whereby a continuous stream of learning materials is provided, supported by a knowledge base and discussion capabilities, to provide the learner with a semistructured and opened ended instructional resource. The syndicated learning model has become increasingly popular in recent months with the rise of the school blogs phenomenon. Clark's models are mostly what I would call "close ended" while models such as syndicated learning and exploratory learning are what could be called "open ended". By Ruth Colvin Clark, Performance Improvement, November, 2000 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

The New ISD: Applying Cognitive Strategies to Instructional Design There's quite a bit going on in this paper. Drawing on her own four architectures of instructional systems design (ISD), and Merrill's suggestion that ISD is "essentially a series of empty boxes," Clark suggests that the application of work in cognitive models of learning (a "recent" advance, she says, over behaviourist models) can provide "a good start to a scientific foundation for design of effective instruction." In particular, this paper describes strategies for reducing the load on working memory so that learning can be grasped and understod. Specific strategies include the use of worked examples instead of problem sets, the use of audio with video instead of text, and training workers to self-explain examples.

I think this is a start, but there is much debate about the use of computational analogies (for example, "working memory") in cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology - now decades old, and hardly recent - has split into a number of distinct approaches, the most important being computational and non-computational models of cognition. It may surprise people to learn that, as a connectionist, I fall into the non-computational camp, and therefore view a structure such as "working memory" to be a very rough and in important ways inaccurate analogy for cognitive learning processes. That's not to object to Clark's depiction per se, but to suggest that more precise formulations should be forthcoming. By Ruth Colvin Clark, Performance Improvement, August, 2002 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

Using Learning Objects in Four Instructional Architectures Nice article by Cisco's Chuck Barritt that applies Ruth Colvin Clark's four archtectures to the deployment of learning objects in learning object management systems. Most of the article is review, but Barritt is able to nail down one of the weaknesses in contemporary learning objet technology: "What is missing is the use of those LOs in all four architectures, especially Guided Discovery. The challenge the human performance technologist is to design applications and interfaces to leverage those existing LOs as Guided Discovery architectures." By Chuck Barritt, The Networker, July, 2002 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

So what now?

I spent a good amount of the time preparing today's newsletter looking for ways around the lock and key blocking access to the articles in the Peformance Improvement journal. This is no way to conduct research, just as it is no way to deliver education and training. It's not simply that I have (as some have characterized it) an "idealistic" aversion to a lock and key internet. It's that neither I nor busy students working in high-demand environments have time or atience for this nonsense. We have access to the greatest invention in human history, a storehouse of all human knowledge, and the primary effort by educators and publishers seems to be to make it as difficult to use as possible.

It should not cost hundreds of throusands of dollars to purchase a system to deliver online learning. It should not cost hundreds of dollars to take an online course. It should not cost $10 (as at Performance Improvement) or $30 to read an online article. These are the prices associated with the print and buggy age, not the sort of access we should come to expect in the age of information.

People are becoming increasingly dissatisfied because they see that the real value in education - what I call the services - are being replaced with pre-packaged content (what some on some of the lists have been calling CD-ROMs online). But the value - the market return, the profit generator, call it what you will - is in the service: the online discussions, the one-on-one with a qualified instructor, the quiet seminar with a few interested individuals. This value is the reason we still go to in-person conferences (lord knows it's not the papers). This value is why people pay hundreds of dollars for a university course.

You can't substitute content for learning, and you can't hold learning to ransom by charging outrageous costs for what amounts to dime-a-dozen content. And you can't charge hundreds of thousands of dollars for what amounts to a content delivery system. The model is flawed. We need what I proposed a year ago, a learning marketplace where everyone can contribute and where everyone can withdraw andwhere the value of content reaches its natural information age level.

Only then will we see e-learning reach its true potential, a potential where any learner can access a wide range of affordable learning opportunities and where content producers can receive a fair return for their work. And an environment, I might add, where there exist many more opportunities for providers of online learning services, many more opportunities not merely because the range of services is dramatically increased, but because the market has evolved from a few million people in Fortune 500 corporations to a few billion people in small businesses, small schools and small communities around the world.

Crisis? What Crisis? Comment Here

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Copyright © 2002 Stephen Downes